Game Over: The Death of Single-Player Games

Think back to the days of the Nintendo 64. What was your favorite game? Was it The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time? What about Super Mario 64? Maybe some of you thought about Mario Kart or Pokemon Stadium. Regardless, the truth is that those were the glory days of gaming. Ocarina of Time is commonly cited as the greatest game of all time, and still sells its dedicated console 13 years later. But what makes it so good? With a huge world map, memorable characters, an epic adventure and innovative gameplay, a better question would be, “what can possibly make it better?” This question is nearly impossible to answer. In today’s era of gaming, the average publisher would disagree, and then proceed to answer “multiplayer”. Undeniably, the gaming community has a problem.

Lately, it’s been confessed by many in the industry that publishers often require the game to include multiplayer. These publishers surely look at the success of military shooters, such as Call of Duty or Battlefield, and hope that the formula works universally. It doesn’t. While multiplayer can be a tool to add countless hours to a game’s replayablilty, it doesn’t work with every title. Take a look at Uncharted 3. The game is praised for its memorable and over-the-top campaign, but its multiplayer is always a key demerit. But what do developers find themselves with if they focus exclusively on a game’s single-player experience? Well, they get this, or this. Both these games delivered an excellent single-player experience, which resulted in GOTY nominations at the VGAs. In fact, most of the nominees were single-player exclusive. The two that weren’t, Uncharted 3 and Portal 2, either didn’t succeed in competitive multiplayer or completely abandoned the idea of it. Of course, publishers don’t care for awards. They don’t care about critical praise, either. These honors are enjoyed by the developers. Publishers only care about one thing.

The real problem here is not just the overuse and abuse of multiplayer, but the “evolution” of the game mode itself. Let’s take a look at Battlefield 3, EA’s 2011 technical masterpiece that was aimed to take down the Call of Duty franchise. Battlefield 3 is a great game and, in my opinion, one of the better first-person shooters of 2011 (second to Crysis 2). One of my biggest complaints with the game was its local multiplayer, or lack of. The exclusion of local multiplayer certainly assures more couch space, but also diminishes what differentiates video games as a medium. Furthermore, local multiplayer has concieved some of the industry’s finest moments. Its not far-fetched to say that most gamers have fond memories of playing Super Smash Bros. with a group of friends. If the Wii can easily support four players, why can’t most popular games on the Playstation 3 or Xbox 360? Of course, games don’t require local multiplayer, but some games just suit the game mode. Halo 3, for example, would not have been nearly as memorable if it excluded it. Halo 3 also proves that local multiplayer does not need to come at the expense of another beloved game mode. Additionally, Halo 3 featured a very diverse and content-heavy online multiplayer (which could be played with up to four people on a single console). The series continued to support local play by making it compatible with every game mode; the campaign, the competitive multiplayer, Forge, and even Firefight. Bungie, the creators of the Halo franchise, clearly have a proper understanding of what makes a game fun. It is hard to call online gaming an evolution if it discontinues other great game modes.

If you are wondering why developers and publishers exchange local multiplayer for online multiplayer, refer once again to this link. The idea is that in order to play the same game with your friends, you both must purchase the game, resulting in double the income. What publishers don’t understand is that they couldn’t be more wrong. Adding local multiplayer can actually result in more sales. If I were to go to my friend’s house to play a game with him, I am essentially demoing the game. If the game is half-decent, I may actually be pursuaded to buy it in order to continue playing afterwards. Some publishers already understand this, like Nintendo. As aforementioned, the Wii does a great job at including multiple players. Granted, most of these four player games are shovelware (usually just minigame compilations), but at least they let me play with my siblings and friends. Nintendo’s success in this area is not exactly foreign to the Nintendo 3DS either. Both Mario Kart 7 and Star Fox 64 3D only require a single game cartridge to play with friends.

For almost the entirety of this generation (2005-current), local multiplayer has no doubt been set aside by developers and publishers. In late 2007, one game attempted to change that. Surprisingly, it did, albeit only for a few short years. On November 20th of 2007, Harmonix (in conjunction with MTV) released Rock Band in North America. While some may argue that Guitar Hero 3 started a trend of rhythm games, no one will dispute that Rock Band evolved it into a multiplayer experience (even if Guitar Hero has been offering split-screen multiplayer since its inception). The reason why local multiplayer never took off for Guitar Hero the way it did for Rock Band was because Guitar Hero was bundled with a single controller. Most people would go to a friend’s house to play, but that friend would only have his one guitar. Rock Band required new peripherals, so it came in a monster of a bundle. This was simply titled the “special edition”, but was quickly viewed as a mandatory purchase, considering that it was the most practical way to obtain the plastic drum periphiral. While gamers had to put down a small fortune to own the game and its many instruments, doing so had benefits. When friends came over, they can now all play as a band (a singer, two guitarists, and a drummer), since pre-owned Guitar Hero controllers were fully compatible with the game. The popularity of four player co-op in Rock Band was a hit, and was quickly replicated by the Guitar Hero franchise. Unfortunately, the popularity of the rhythm genre was short lived, and most would agree that Activision killed it with annual releases (sounds familiar, huh?). With the passing of the surge of rhythm games, we may also be saying goodbye to local multiplayer.

Most gamers have probably come to terms with the decline of local multiplayer, but are those same gamers ready to dismiss single-player games? According to Skyrim’s sale figures, probably not. In fact, Skyrim set some very impressive records on Steam, Valve’s online electronic retailer. Speaking of Valve (developers of Half Life, Portal, and Left4Dead), Portal 2 will probably be the last game from the studio with an isolated single-player experience. While this can mean a number of things, it definitely indicates where the industry is heading; online experiences. The problem with this is that it is hard to establish a proper narrative in a multiplayer setting. Even most co-op campaigns struggle in that respect, because they require a different style of storytelling and writing.

Just as the popularity of rhythm gaming has come and gone, maybe the focus on online multiplayer will also fade over time. With that said, we are at the peak of the trend. In our sights, things aren’t looking better. Rumors suggest that the Wii U will only support a single tablet controller. While this hasn’t been confirmed, and has been blatantly denied by Nintendo of America’s president Reggie Fils-Aime, this news should worry gamers. This would imply that single player experiences that use the system’s unique tablet controller can never be replicated into an offline co-operative scenerio. Thankfully, the company is not hell-bent on dominating the online market, even if they are currently pushing to be on par with the industry’s standards. While its reassuring to know that Nintendo understands the problems with modern gaming, the same can’t be said for the rest of the industry. There is a clear shift in priority that might result in the extinction of single player games. Seeing that most publishers require a handsome fee for online access, this can essentially hurt the industry as a whole. Microsoft isn’t the only company draining the resources out of its consumers for no justifiable reason. A lot of publishers are requiring an “online pass” in order to play a game’s multiplayer, which will cost players an additional $10 for those who have purchased the game used. The high cost of gaming will not feel rewarding if publishers continue to diminish great experiences, and I am probably not alone when I say that I am not ready to close the casket on single player games.

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2 responses to “Game Over: The Death of Single-Player Games

  1. As much as I was looking forward to Saints Row 3, some of the shine was taken off by getting everything set up for system link play, booting up both consoles, and then finding out that we would have to pay an additional $10 just for system link. Not even online multiplayer! System link.

    It’s a disheartening trend and I don’t like it.

    • If I’m not mistaken, System Link was even a functionality of the original Xbox. The idea that we are paying extra for it now is just pathetic. Its clearly an unjustifiable money-grab.

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